Holocene sediments of an inundated sinkhole: facies analysis of the “Great Blue Hole”, Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Abstract

Anoxic sinkholes are unique geomorphological features of modern reef systems and in terms of “lake-like” sediment successions very special marine depositional environments. This study presents results of a sedimentological survey, which focuses on the “Great Blue Hole”, a circular Pleistocene karst cavity, situated in the shallow eastern lagoon of Lighthouse Reef Atoll (Belize, Central America). The investigated Blue Hole is located within the tropical cyclone belt and acts as consequence of its unique geomorphology as a giant sediment trap for both fair weather and storm sedimentation. As an important innovation step, we applied a multi-proxy approach based on textural, compositional and geochemical data to ensure a more reliable differentiation between sediments with fair weather and storm condition affiliation. Sediments having formed under both conditions were texturally categorized by determination of classical sedimentary parameters such as mean grain size and sorting. Sediment composition has been quantified in thin sections based on 40 samples discretely taken along a core from the bottom of the 125 m deep and 320 m wide cavern. Classification of sedimentary facies follows a modified scheme for unconsolidated carbonate sediments based on the Dunham nomenclature. Fair-weather sediments are generally finer than 20 μm and consist on average of 81% carbonate fine material, 12% Halimeda platelets, 3% coral fragments, 2% organic material, 1% mollusc shells, 1% foraminifer tests, and minor portions of coralline red algae and echinoderm plates (0–1%). Intercalated event bed sediments are coarse-silt to sand-sized (> 20 μm) and differ in terms of generally lower fine carbonate material amounts (50%) and increased abundances of over-washed Halimeda platelets (28%) and coral fragments (6%). Combined analyses of this study have revealed four primary sedimentary facies with affiliation either to the background (mudstone) or cyclonic event sedimentation (Halimeda wackestone, algae-rich packstone, coralgal rudstone) as well as a transitional sub-facies indicating storm-induced background overprinting (background wackestone). The striking compositional and textural differences of the Halimeda wackestone, algae-rich packstone and coralgal rudstone facies are considered to be another helpful (semi)-quantitative proxy to identify event beds of tropical cyclones in unconsolidated sinkhole sediment successions.

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taken from the core section BH7/1 within this study. b Magnified core images of mudstone (bs), wackestone (overprinted-bs), Halimeda wackestone (es), algae-rich packstone (es) and coralgal rudstone (es) facies. Abbreviations: bs background sedimentation; es event sedimentation

Data availability

All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article and its supplementary material. Correspondence and requests for raw materials should be addressed to D.S (d.schmitt@em.uni-frankfurt.de).

Code availability

Not applicable.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the Belize Audubon Society and the Belize Fisheries Department for site access, work permission and sample export permission. We are grateful to captain Norlan Lamb and the crew of his vessel “Miss Phillippa” for their tireless efforts to realise this project in spite of hurricane warning and logistical problems. We feel much obliged to our colleagues G. Meyer (Frankfurt) and S. Haber (Bad Karlshafen), who assisted us in many technical and operative ways during the fieldwork. We also owe a great debt of gratitude to N. Prawitz (Frankfurt) for thin-section preparation and D. Bergmann-Dörr (Frankfurt) for access to and assistance in laser optical particle analyser measurements. We thank Editor-in-chief Wolfgang Kießling, reviewer Robert Madden and another anonymous journal reviewer for their detailed and critical comments, which improved this paper.

Funding

“Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft” (DFG) supported this survey in project Gi 222/31-1.

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Contributions

DS and EG did the field work in Belize. DS made the sampling, core description and textural analyses. DW performed the thin-section point counting process and conducted the statistical analyses. DS wrote large parts of the paper. All co-authors discussed the results and provided equally input to the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Dominik Schmitt.

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The authors declare no competing (financial and non-financial) interests.

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Schmitt, D., Gischler, E. & Walkenfort, D. Holocene sediments of an inundated sinkhole: facies analysis of the “Great Blue Hole”, Lighthouse Reef, Belize. Facies 67, 10 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10347-020-00615-8

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Keywords

  • Caribbean
  • Holocene
  • Belize
  • Carbonates
  • Sedimentary Facies